Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice

The Jewish Publication Society  2018


Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector and distinguished service professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University, “clearly articulates Conservative Judaism’s essential, vital, and unique character” with the publication of Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice. An editor of Emet Ve-Emunah, the official statement of principles for the Movement, and the author of twelve books on Jewish philosophy, law, and ethics, Dorff is a widely read and broadly accepted voice for Conservative Judaism. As identified in its preface, Modern Conservative Judaism is an “introspective, thought-provoking discussion of Conservative Judaism’s emerging beliefs and practices over the last fifty years.” It is an accessible read, designed as a source book for adolescent and adult education, for use in college courses, as a reference for clergy and educators, and for a single reader of any faith and level of knowledge of Jewish life.

Following an introduction that traces the history of Conservative Judaism from its European beginnings, Dorff divides the book into three sections. Section one explores Conservative Jewry’s understanding of God, and approaching God through prayer. The second section considers Jewish law and practice, including individual chapters on bioethics, sexuality, business ethics, and the role of women in Jewish life. Section three presents the Movement’s stance on Jewish peoplehood and the State of Israel, and provides selected primary sources on Conservative Jewish practice in the Jewish State.

Of particular interest is the fifth chapter, “P’sak Din,” which explores the philosophy behind Conservative Jewish practice and the Movement’s commitment to “preserving Judaism as it developed historically.” At the same time, notes Rabbi Dorff,

Conservative leaders recognize that sometimes laws and customs must change – just as they have historically – particularly when change is needed to engage people effectively in Jewish tradition.

This chapter outlines the process through which Conservative Jewry, both on a local and communal level, guides the evolution of Jewish practice. It concludes with an excerpt from Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s paper on pluralism in Jewish law, which seeks to balance the role of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Conservative Jewry’s governing body for communal practice, with the role of a pulpit rabbi, in determining expectations for local practice.

The book concludes with an epilogue, “The Ideal Conservative Jew,” in which Dorff reiterates:

Being a Conservative Jew entails hard work . . . It requires judgment to determine when to live by the tradition alone, when to live by modernity alone, and, in most cases, when and how to blend tradition with modernity.

Modern Conservative Judaism offers the background needed to understand and negotiate this process. It serves as a valuable tool for sharing the relevancy and authenticity of Conservative Jewry with the next generation.

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